A strong company culture prizes transparency, authenticity, and individuality, which in turn fosters an environment in which team members feel comfortable being themselves. This does not mean there should not be standards of professionalism and excellence, but it does mean that team members should have the space in which to play, make mistakes, and be creative. When people are not intimidated to reveal aspects of who they are, they are likely to be happier and freer to come up with out-of-the-box ideas that can become any company's cutting edge. Furthermore, when people are embraced for their differences, they tend to be more open to engaging in the kind of empathetic listening and nuanced discourse that build strong bonds in both business and society.
Here are four practical tips to ensure you are building a culture in which team members are empowered to be themselves:
1.) Practice top-down humility
It is important to set an example from the top. Especially when working remotely, it is okay to run a slightly less efficient meeting if it allows time for asking team members about their families and personal wellbeing. This builds empathy, trust, and loyalty that will more than compensate for five minutes diverted from your agenda. On a quarterly basis, I conduct an orientation with new team members during which we get to know one another by sharing one thing about ourselves that others might not expect. I make a conscious effort to reveal my own quirks and weaknesses so that others know it is okay to do the same. Fostering an environment in which team members are not intimidated by leadership, helps ensure that senior leaders stay humble and challenged by their teams. When those reporting to an executive instead feel intimidated, a harmful cult of personality can take hold.
2.) Encourage hearty debate and openness to feedback
Openness to disagreement is fundamental to a business' success. Without tolerance for nuanced discourse and hearty debate, we miss the opportunity to learn from one another. In society and in the workplace, there is too often aversion to changing one's mind. This is dangerous, because it robs us of our ability to see fact, reason, and truth. When we cling to preconceived notions instead of welcoming new, even if conflicting information, we limit the marketplace of ideas that fuels innovation, progress, and growth. This also means being open to receiving constructive critical feedback without taking it personally. KIND's former President John Leahy used to say, "Develop a thick skin." While John hails from a slightly older generation, his message to avoid defensiveness and welcome the opportunity for improvement is meaningful for younger professionals to consider.
3.) Lighten up a little
When team members are scared to be themselves, an organizational culture can quickly turn sterile, risk averse, and stagnant. Having grown up in Mexico immersed in Latin culture, I am accustomed to a warm and open approach that includes not taking yourself or others too seriously. This welcomes a sense of humor about our shared faults and quirks, and opens us up to readily connect with others. I have observed American culture to be more serious, 'by the book', and politically correct. While it is important for teams to operate professionally and with the utmost respect for one another, we could all afford to loosen up a little.
4.) Feed an ownership mentality
We tend to be more open to listening to others when we feel united by a common goal. Companies that foster an ownership culture of shared accountability may have even greater success building strong bonds between team members that supersede superficial divisions or petty differences. Because when we are all working towards the same objective, we are likely to be more open-minded about the best path to getting there. And because we know that our team members have nothing to gain by disagreeing with us for disagreement's sake, we are bolstered by a sense of trust that gives us the safe space in which to hash things out.
Deliberately developing a company culture that welcomes differing points of view helps us build a society that does the same. At a time when our nation is greatly divided, building corporate environments that prize empathetic listening, respectful debate, and authenticity can help counteract growing polarization. When we have the space in which to entertain other points of view and feel comfortable enough to express our own - all with the understanding that we share a similar goal - we unlock opportunity.